Why Florence should be your next winter destination

WT Writer
Dec 9, 2019
Rammed in summer, Florence has a rare magic when days grow shorter and quieter. Long-time devotee Adrian Mourby welcomes winter with a shiver of pleasure…

I fell in love with Florence a very long time ago. It was my first Italian city, all pantiled domes, church bells at dawn, Puccini in piazzas and swooning maidens. I’d just seen A Room with a View; and the fabled città of the Medicis, Michelangelo and Merchant Ivory really did deliver a mix of monumental architecture and small-town Tuscan bottegas. I’d arrived clutching my Interrail card, and the whole place looked so like the film. True, the piazzas weren’t thronged with tight-waisted extras twirling parasols, but it was definitely the yearning, dark, deeply atmospheric city of EM Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch.

I lost that Florence in subsequent years. The home of Botticelli and Brunelleschi has become too popular for its own good – in summertime, at least, the streets around the Uffizi and Ponte Vecchio are a seething gridlock. That, I eventually realised, was precisely the problem: I was only in Tuscany in July and August. I was seeking out the whisper of nostalgia at the noisiest time of year. So, of late, I’ve begun visiting in November or December, just as the festive decorations are going up and the rain’s coming down. My Florence is a damp, dark, misty place, but boy, it’s a magical one, too.

The Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Tuscany

The Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Tuscany. Credit: Getty Images

A FOGGY  FRIDAY MORNING

At 6am, make the most of those empty streets with a brisk walk. In Piazza della Signoria, outside the Medicis’ 14th-century palace, the café chairs are still stacked and chained, and there’s a pigeon sleeping on the head of David – a replica of Michelangelo’s bug-eyed 16th-century masterpiece, relocated to the Galleria dell’Accademia. Head on down to the Arno. The open-sided Mercato del Porcellino (mercatodelporcellino.it) stands empty. Only the Porcellino itself shines in the gloom – this bronze statue of a wild boar gets its snout rubbed so often (for luck) that its nostrils glow. By the river, the street lamps that line the embankments are balls of pale-orange light afloat in the mist. The Ponte Vecchio is empty, its gold and silversmith shops barricaded behind shutters and bars that would deter a besieging army. You’re alone, save for maybe a one-man delivery van puttering past. The Arno flows, black and silent.

Outside the shuttered Picteau Lounge, over on the Oltrarno side of the river, there’s a small terrace that wins hands-down for the best view in Florence, especially as the sky above the bridge breaks into patches of deep-blue between the dark retreating clouds. Wander around Oltrarno and you’re in the part of the city where Florentines live. Corner shops are shutting up in the darkness, as crates of produce are pulled inside. Cafés are noisily taking out the empties.

For an atmospheric first day, walk down the long Borgo Pinti street, past sooty palazzi that rise, canyon-like, either side. The 19th-century English Cemetery is at the far end, amid a whirl of traffic. Nicknamed The Isle of the Dead, it inspired Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin (whose baby daughter was buried here) to paint his celebrated picture of the same name. With its cypresses and Neo-Gothic tombs, it’s a ghostly world. The poet Walter Savage Landor, the novelist Fanny Trollope and the American abolitionist Theodore Parker were all interred here, as was the pre-Raphaelite model Fanny Waugh, who designed her own tomb on her death-bed. Her husband, William Holman Hunt, then sculpted it. Have your camera to hand for marble statues of desolate widows, life-sized grim reapers and tearful angels looming up at you out of the gloom.

You’ll need something life-enhancing now, so break for lunch. Take the C3 bus back to Ponte Vecchio and walk along the Arno to Il Borro (big brother of the Dubai outpost). Under frescoed ceilings, a sole waiter slices meat on one of those circular machines, with all the tenderness of a lover. Try lampredotto, a Florentine street eat of slow-cooked tripe served on a bun with spicy tomato sauce and salsa verde. It’s a seasonal treat: for me, another of the great joys of Florence in autumn or early winter.

Sated, go and see the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo nearby, resplendent in its 13th-century palazzo. It’s filled with footwear created by the Florentine shoemaker for Hollywood stars. You may catch an American couple, ostensibly in Florence for the Uffizi, gasp in delight to see footwear ‘Creato per Joan Crawford’, ‘Creato per Rudolph Valentino’ and ‘Creato per Mary Pickford’. Perhaps you’ll follow the pair, past engineers stringing up the first Christmas lights against a darkening sky, into Piazza di Santa Trinita. They shiver and pull their coats closer. California must seem a warm world away.

End up at Irene, the restaurant of the flamboyant Savoy Hotel. Its afternoon tea is modern – dainty waiters set individual timers running for each brew – but the view is timeless as Piazza della Repubblica fills up with café society and children in scarves begging to be allowed on the gaudily restored, brightly lit Victorian carousel. You may exit the Savoy to a vicious little spatter of rain across the piazza as carols break out from the other side: a visiting choir from some Canadian University, serenading the city on their way to the Duomo. Tonight, Christmas has come early to Florence.

‘This is what I love about Florence. You needn’t stray far to encounter a much quirkier city than the crowds find around Piazza della Signoria’

Christmas in Florence, Decorative Lights.

Festive Lights in Florence. Credit: Getty Images

A SATURDAY EVENING OUT

Saturdays are always busy – after dark there are drinks to be had and dinner to be found. A big ’50s Martini sign glows red above Via Roma as dusk settles. Take your umbrella for a 6pm stroll, when the traffic starts to ease. Along the Arno they’re roasting chestnuts, brought down from groves in the hills – on a damp autumn day the whole city can smell of them. It’s tradition to buy a bag for the Florentine passeggiata, the late-pm walk downtown.

Crossing to the Oltrarno side, look back over the river and you’ll see the entire Renaissance city lit up. The tower of Palazzo Vecchio stretches above it all, and the huge picture-windows of the Uffizi Gallery are reflected in the river as the last visitors are shepherded out. The stillness of the scene is broken by a lone oarsman sculling in the slow-flowing Arno, having left it very late to get home.

There is plenty of entertainment to be had – now Florence has to try a bit harder to entice people out of their homes and cosy hotels. At the end of October, the festival of Florence Creativity runs daily in the sturdy Fortezza da Basso, which once defended the city walls. Just about every activity has a stand here: stencilling, papier-mâché, bookbinding, scrapbooking, quilting. Personally, I’m a sucker for music – the kind found at Teatro del Sale, a music hall near Piazza Santa Croce. It’s open most nights for a help-yourself supper – pans of risotto with porcini mushrooms, dishes of beetroot salad – served from trestle tables along with good, basic Tuscan wine. The act might be a Swiss yodeller, or Maria Cassi, wife of the patron and a gloriously full-throated cabaret artiste. It’s all huge noisy fun and full of locals who never take their coats off. Last time I was here, next to me was a grande dame; tucked under her cloak was the tiniest of dogs, which she fed discreetly with titbits.

Amble back to the centre along Via Giuseppe Verdi, the bohemian quarter, home to cafés including Pino’s Sandwiches and Viktoria Lounge Bar: little late-night windows of luminescence. Filistrucchi, opposite Pino’s, is a small shop selling theatrical wigs and cosmetic hairpieces. You’d never guess it was founded in 1720 and is the oldest continuously operating store in the city. A plaque on its first floor marks where the flood of 1966 reached. Filistrucchi took a few days off that November.

This is what I love about Florence. You needn’t stray far to encounter a much quirkier city than the crowds find around Piazza della Signoria. Once, coming back from Teatro del Sale, near the Dante Museum, I came across the tiny chapel of San Martino Vescovo, doors open, lights blazing. An offertory box on the outside receives funds to help the poor, as it has for centuries (St Martin hacked his cloak in two to clothe a beggar). Wander in, and you’ll probably have the utterly beautiful medieval frescoes depicting the life of the saint all to yourself.

Nearer the Duomo, Christmas window displays start to go up around Thanksgiving, poking fun at the city: think Botticelli’s Venus in a cocktail dress. Wet pavements mirror the white lights looped across silent streets. Shops, such as the department store Rinascente, have great rivers of light cascading down their exterior.

Last thing, circle Brunelleschi’s Duomo and its Baptistry. Its white, green and pink marble lit dramatically against a pitch-black sky, it’s unforgettable, possibly more beautiful than by day.

Chef Making Pizza

Pizza preparation. Credit: Getty Images

OUT TO SUNDAY LUNCH

At last the sun comes out. Assuage that mournful last-day feeling by rooting out a good lunch and the best of Florence’s museums. JK Place is my favourite: a boutique hotel on peaceful Piazza di Santa Maria Novella. Inside is dense with comfy sofas, room perfumes and wealthy New Yorkers. The food is international with a Tuscan twist. One time I saw them stuff a great turkey for their American guests at Thanksgiving – that pumpkin and cornmeal are common to both culinary cultures certainly helped the fusion.

Or you might idle over this year’s extra-virgin olive oil and bruschetta at Trattoria 13 Gobbi, in a backstreet behind the French Cultural Institute. Here you’ll find more Florentines than tourists. It’s a warm little space of exposed brick and empty bottles stacked like trophies. Go for classic Tuscan: maybe spaghetti with sea urchin, or grilled beef with roasted potatoes. The Florentines are in relaxed mood before the great tourist onslaught of Christmas. The women wear furs and air-kiss as they arrive with shopping, the men in dark coats discuss politics, while drinking very, very slowly.

The Uffizi is one of the must-see European art galleries, of course, especially if you like the Renaissance. In summer it’s packed, especially in front of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, the serene goddess wafting to shore on a giant scallop shell. But November and December are two of the quietest months, and Sundays are generally not at all crowded. On the second floor there are soffitti (ceiling) portraits of European royalty, including Henry VIII, Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda.

Perhaps you’d like a David hunt? You’ve seen him reproduced outside Palazzo Vecchio. You’ve spotted him graffiti’d, Banksy-style, in shorts and ‘I Love Florence’ T-shirt, mobile phone in hand. Now find the real thing at Galleria dell’Accademia. First, a lovely stroll north, passing Palazzo Medici Ricordi and Palazzo Bartolo Corbini, the vines over them turning red and yellow as incipient frosts nip at the roots. The statue of David (1504) that once stood in Piazza della Signoria has been in the Accademia since 1873. Coming face-to-face with his five-metre-tall bulk never disappoints, even if it’s actually face-to-big toe (he’s on a plinth). All that detail in marble – down to the veins in his hands and feet – is more extraordinary when you realise that Michelangelo thought it was bound for the roofline of the Duomo. Only God – and curious pigeons – would have recognised the phenomenal artistry. And at this time of year you can go right up to him, all but alone.

Soon it will be time to get a taxi to the airport, so step out into Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, turning back for a final view of the Duomo. The last time I was at the Accademia I came out to find the rain had stopped and left the most complete rainbow arching over the city. Such is the joy of low-season Florence: all the light in the darkness, and the sudden unexpected surprises – simple moments of beauty in a great, silent, tourist-free city.

Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/ News Licensing

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